November 14, 2016
Written by Jon Hamilton
This post originally appeared on NPR.
Some tiny clusters of brain cells grown in a lab dish are making big news at this week’s Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.
Known as “minibrains,” these rudimentary networks of cells are small enough to fit on the head of a pin, but already are providing researchers with insights into everything from early brain development to Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s and Zika.
At a Sunday press conference at the neuroscience meeting, researchers said minibrains are helping them figure out how the Zika virus can disrupt human brain formation in the early stages of fetal development.
Minibrains are highly organized structures that actually start out as human skin cells. They are then coaxed in the lab to become neural stem cells, then to differentiate into some of the different types of cells found in a real brain.
What makes these lab-grown structures so useful is that they replicate part of the cell diversity and connectivity of the human brain, said Dr. Thomas Hartung, a researcher and experimental toxicologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
“These cells are communicating,” Hartung said. “These neurons are talking to each other.”
As a result, the minibrains can help researchers answer questions that couldn’t be answered by studying animal brain tissue. “We need human systems to tell us about humans, and that’s why this is such a big step forward,” Hartung said.
The first minibrains were developed a few years ago by scientists in Europe. Since then, researchers at a handful of institutions around the world have begun cranking out these experimental structures.
At Johns Hopkins, Hongjun Song has been working to streamline the process and make minibrains that are closer to the real thing in the way they respond to viruses, for example.